Saturday, June 02, 2007


Music is probably the single greatest source of creative inspiration for me. Whenever I listen to music, my brain goes into overdrive, and ideas begin to take visual form. The more I listen, the more characters, settings and details go into those ideas, until they become just like movies.

Once I can see the entire story, I hit the keyboard and translate the vision into words. I don't ever lose the story, either -- all I have to do is listen to the song that inspired it and the story movie plays out in my mind exactly as it did the first time I imagined it.

I have no musical preferences, and have come up with novels based on every type of music, from Mozart to Nine Inch Nails. The only strange thing is that I see images but I never hear dialogue, so in that sense, the movies in my head are silent (I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that I prefer to compose dialogue spontaneously while I'm writing.)

If you've never tried visualizing story to music, here are a couple of tips on the process:

1. Fresh music won't have any associations for you, so try picking up some albums by musicians and bands you've never heard, or tune into a new station on the radio.

2. Listen when you're in a relaxing or quiet situation. I listen to CDs when I sit on the porch, take a bubble bath, fold laundry, or go for a drive in the country or down by the lake. The more relaxed you are, the more likely your imagination will want to come out and play.

3. Don't try to force it. Keep your mind open and let the images come to you in response to the music. If you're still having trouble envisioning things, try to imagine what colors would best express the song you're listening to. Once you have a palette in mind, imagine those colors defining something about a character or setting.

4. If you choose to listen to music that you've heard before, avoid songs that have bad associations, or that for whatever reason depress or upset you (unless that's a good writing mood for you, then go for it.)

5. After you've listened to music, go spend a little time on the keyboard. Write about whatever you thought of while you were listening. Don't worry about making it perfect, just describe what you saw in your head. I don't listen to music when I write because I find it actually becomes a distraction, but if you don't have a problem with that you can also play the song while you're writing.

Don't be afraid to experiment, either. About half the music I listen to is made outside the United States, and by trying bands from other countries I've discovered some terrific artists that normally don't get air time on our radio stations. I think I have a thing for Canadian bands in particular; Nickelback, The Golden Dogs, and Wintersleep have practically owned the CD player in my car for the last couple of years.

Let's hear what you have to say about music and story -- in comments to this post list a song that inspired you creatively (or if you're new at this, just throw your name in the hat) by midnight EST on Monday, June 4, 2007. I'll draw one name at random from everyone who participates, and grant the winner a musicwish* along with a copy of the Nickelback album that inspired me while I was writing Night Lost, my personal notes about the songs involved, and a signed copy of the end result. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.

*A musicwish is any music CD by any artist you choose, provided that the CD can be 1) ordered from an online source and 2) costs up to a maximum of $25.00 US dollars. I'll throw in for free any shipping and handling fees that are involved.

Related links:

Laurence O'Donnell's excellent article Music and the Brain.

Music and the Brain: Processing and Responding (A General Overview) by Feyza Sancar explains some of the nuts and bolts involved with the brain as it processes music.


  1. Everything I write has a playlist! I can never seem to get it to come together until I find the right music. Current book's playlist: Devil Went Down to Georgia, Charlie Daniels Band, Livin' La Vida Loca, Ricky Martin, Devil Inside, What You Need and Need You Tonight by INXS and Eli's Coming by Laura Nyro. (Somebody really needs to do a remake of Eli's Coming. Like the Indigo Girls.)

  2. The only book (so far) that doesn't have a soundtrack is Polar Bear on the Loose. That book was already inside me and itching to get out.

    The rest have had to be drawn out, and music does that. So far, I have been able to work successfully with music I'm familiar with, but I can certainly understand where that wouldn't work in all instances.

    I have found XM satellite radio to be helpful for identifying new music sources I wouldn't ordinarily encounter. But if someone doesn't already have it, I don't think most people would find it worthwhile to pay for as an inspiration source.

  3. Don't laugh - Duel of the Fates from the Phantom Menace soundtrack. I love that piece of music. (Haven't actually seen the film all the way through I don't think. They played the track on the Classical Music TV station in the UK) Because of the way it's structured it's almost like the music is telling a story anyway. I find it very useful to listen to when I want to think creatively.

  4. Anonymous7:32 PM

    My musical inspiration seems to work a bit differently from yours- I listen to one song and it strikes a chord in me, describing a tiny scene that just happens to fit with the characters perfectly. I only remember this happeninga few times so far- the songs were Hakuna Mutata (yes, the song from Lion King), Cage (by Dir En Grey, a Japanese rock band), and Paradise ~Fanatic~ (By Kusao Tsuyoshi, also Japanese, very dark, the character song for a very evil character on an anime I love)

    And lesleyw- I agree! It's a fantastic piece of work

  5. I knew my answer to this one at once. When I was in high school, writing angsty high-school stuff, I would listen to the soundtrack to Somewhere in Time over and over again as I wrote. There are no words to distract and the moods it evokes are very strong. I may just drag it up in iTunes for the writing I'm doing tonight.

  6. When I was writing Sundown, I played The Verve's The Drugs Don't Work so many times that it drove my husband to distraction. Even though the title derives from a completely different song. I'm pretty sure that story would never have been written without The Verve :D.

    And whenever I got stuck with my alt hist Romans, I used to put on the Gladiator soundtrack. Worked like a charm!

  7. Well.. I wouldn't say "inspire", but at work I often listen to music and it helps my productivity. Sufjan Stevens and Elliot Brood.

  8. I gave the last few things I've been working on to a friend recently, and her comment was "OMG, the *emotions*! You had me wrung out by the end ..." and other words to that effect. Hmm. Then I realized, while working on my latest WIPs, I've been listening to a lot of country music. Not my own personal preference, but it's the only radio station that comes in clear at night ini my apartment. So maybe all that hurtin' and cheatin' and lyin' and lovin' music in the background *has* been affecting me! LOL

  9. Delurking here to say that I cannot work without music. However, I am a compulsive singer, so I have to listen with headphones or else I risk singing more than writing.

    The playlist for my WIP includes "Protection" by Massive Attack, "Can't Let it Go" by Goo Goo Dolls, "Tango to Evora" by Loreena McKinnett, "Start the Machine" by Angels & Airwaves, "The Walk" by Imogen Heap, and "More" by Tara MacLean. It's a very girl-heavy setlist for me, which is unusual.

  10. Anonymous9:09 PM

    I don't write, so I'm throwing my name in the proverbial hat. Thanks.

  11. Anonymous9:11 PM

    I took Yo-Yo Ma's "Libertango Tango Suite" as a creative trigger a few months ago. The resulting short story was so solid I decided to put it into a literary contest. It won. The music really told me all about my main character and the whole story itself.

    For my first novel I made a jazz-only playlist, and I think it shows on the text. One of my readers told me the prose was some kind of textual-jazz, with no knowledge of my playlist at all.

    So, maybe this music thing works for me.

  12. Oh I LOVE nickleback hehe!!! gosh there are so many songs and artists i really like but i would have to say definatly all oldie LOVE songs ^_^ i am a sap for those and Rascal Flatts the country singers the songs they sing are very inspiring when i am drawing :) or writting poetry. I acually got to go see Rascal Flatts in concert and i got to meet them and get a pic taken with them then they all signed it. I LOVE GARY he is the one i hugged good at tight LOL * BLUSHING*! anyways that is all for my ramblings :) and i cant wait for EVERMORE Lynn i am so excited.


  13. I'm always looking for new inspiration. I will have to try some of your musical suggestions. For now though, I'm just throwing my name in the hat.

  14. Every book/story I've written has a soundtrack. Right now I'm working on a contemporary Western, so I'm listening to Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kane (an incredible "alternative" country band featuring Christian Kane, the guy who played "Lindsey" on ANGEL: The Series), a little Neil Young, Steve Carlson, Patti Loveless and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

    I can't listen to music while I'm writing -- I need perfect silence for that. But I burn soundtracks for stories and then drive my family crazy by listening to them over and over while I fold clothes, wash dishes and drive. As I listen, I'm envisioning scenes and composing dialogue in my head.

  15. My first completed work was written while listening to musicals, even took the title from one. This time around I've been listening to a lot of the Beatles, starting with Abbey Road.
    P.S. Have you been getting any of the rain, G'ville's been getting rain for 2 days now *g*.

  16. Anonymous10:29 PM

    Sometimes when I'm plotting I find it easier to make a soundtrack for the story (song-per-scene) rather than more traditional methods. Much easier to balance the action, craft the run-up to the climax, figure out the emotions I want in the scene.

    Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan have the best track record for my story ideas, but the most recent inspiration has come from Bright Eyes' "No One Would Riot For Less" and "Eternal Life" by Jeff Buckley.

  17. Haven't actually written a story to music or have anything inspired by it. I've tried, but I just couldn't flush out the story well enough. Anyways, if you're interested in a different sound, try some Brazilian bands like batUCLAda (yes, they're a Brazilian ensemble at UCLA), or Ile Aye. They're just awesome ;)

  18. Anonymous2:23 AM

    No music suggestions, but Internet radio is an excellent way to discover new artists and completely new music genres. My current favorite is It has lots of community features to help you find things you might like based on things you already know about. The basic version is free, paid versions offer more control and more personalization.

  19. I'm a Nickelback fan as well :)

    I can't listen to music while I write because the singing (mine) distracts me, and I haven't actually gone so far as to create a playlist for any of my stories, but music does inspire ideas for me. "Every Breath You Take" by the Police played a part in my most recently completed story.

    Country music is a story unto itself!

  20. Anonymous2:58 AM

    I am soooo depressed that I can't have Pandora Internet radio here anymore. It was such a great resource for me.

    I usually had heard some special tune, had that inner film going on my brain projector and made a "channel" out of it (IE, Pandora tried to find stuff that I liked, since I liked that particular tune...)

    Had a channel per book I was working on and it was great! I have never found so much great music to be inspired by, and it certainly set the mood effectively for writing.

    I almost allways write with music on, but the lyrics can never be in the same language that I'm writing. Somehow I get distracted then.

    I am soooo sad now that I can't even buy most of the records I listened to here. Obscure import album stores might carry one or two, but...

    If I win (yeah, but one can hope...) I would SO wish that you could help me buy a very special record that can't be found here...

    Pandora shutting down in Europe is one of the single largest reasons my horror book (first in that genre) is not getting done on time.

  21. A couple of songs that have inspired my why I write: "No One Mourns the Wicked" from the Wicked soundtrack, "Side of a Bullet" by Nickelback, "The Ultimate Showdown" by Lemon Demon (hilarious song if you haven't heard it), and a really fun scene to "Dead!" by My Chemical Romance.

  22. Pretty much every one of Dar Williams' albums has inspired a short story or two. Tegan and Sara's "Walking with the Ghost" was the inspiration for one of my current WIP. I'm also a huge fan of classic country, particularly the old story songs.

    I'd like to share a fantastic source for great new music too. Emerson College's radio station is commercial free, non-profit and student run. During the week they play the most fantastic mix of indie, world, jazz, fold, bluegrass, rock and anything in general that is just great music. They dedicate their weekends to shows that play Broadway, acapella or children's music (all fantastic shows). I've discovered so many of my favorite artists by listening to them it is ridiculous. You can listen to them online at I'd highly recommend checking them out next time you are looking to get exposed to something new.

  23. I love listening to a good ballad to set the mood. It could be a love ballad (I always lean toward Bon Jovi for those--guess I really am a product of my youth), or a good Irish ballad, or a little Dead Can Dance. But my favorite for setting me into a contemplative mood is Gordon Lightfoot.

    A little Jimmy Buffet is always fun, though, too. And I'm a total soundtrack fiend.

    I haven't actually tried story developing to music, though. I'm going to have to give that a go! It sounds like fun.

  24. I'm not a writer (at least not a writer of anything intended for publication), but for other creative endeavours I've found music really helpful. I can't recall a specific song at the moment, but I'd love to add my name to the hat.

  25. I'm in stop-and-go traffic for an hour and a half a day, so I use my iPod (always on shuffle!) and that time to work on everything from story and character development to working out specific dialgue scenes.

    One of my favorite things (especially in a developing project) is to take whatever song randomly shuffles in and figure out what kind of scene it would underscore. Many times, it's not something I would actually write into a novel, but it's always good for wrapping my head around a character and his or her mindset.

    When I'm on hiatus and not driving every day, I get so much less thinking done!

  26. I was really inspired by "Would?" by Alice in Chains for a short story I finished recently called "This Devil's Song." The story itself is about music, and that song in particular had a beat that matched the pacing in my story. Plus the band in my story is a sort of grunge band similar to Alice in Chains.

  27. I own about a thousand CDs, and when I'm not listening to those I have the radio on or Internet radio playing. I hear so much music by so many different artists and in so many different styles that it's hard for me not to had previously made connections with artists or songs. When it comes to how music affects me creatively, I tend to make wonderful mix CDs with a certain rhythm and flow. But affecting my writing output? If it hasn't slowed it down, it certainly hasn't increased or focused it.

  28. Anonymous5:14 PM

    I love music, but I'm an active listener. I listen to the music more than I think about the story. However, I am inspired by music. I let marinate whatever comes to mind while listening, then when it's quiet, I write.

    One song I found for setting a mood I wanted to capture is from the "Elizabethtown" soundtrack, called "Hard Times (Come Again No More)". The whole soundtrack is one of my favorites.

    I wish I could listen and write at the same time, but I end up vegging out in the music.

    Karen, the lurker

  29. Not a fan of Nickelback, sorry, and don't put me into the draw.

    I used the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian for the 250k Oracle novel, um... Sarah Brightman's Harem, Classics and Time to Say Goodbye for the Season's Trilogy, Mike Oldfield's Voyager, Amarok and Tubular Bells II for Anzac Ascension and - no snickering, now - Aqua's Aquarius and all The Corrs albums for Demonesque.

    I can't remember what I used for the others, but I also use single hits for short stories.

    There's no doubt music gets you in the mood.

  30. For inspiration and creativity I listen to Neil Young. His music provides me with exactly what I'm looking for. His voice, lyrics and unique sound has always appealed to me.

  31. When I have to produce a paper and soon I will be working on my thesis I listen to Patrizio Buanne. His voice carries me away and I never even feel the effort that I have to make and the time that it takes. Power and beauty all rolled into one.

  32. If I need prodding into action then the music I crave is definitely Lara Fabian. She has a uique and totally different voice which gives me the impetus to get going and I feel so good.

  33. Music is a wonderful motivator. No wonder so many create masterpieces whether it is just backgorund music or full blown performances that touch your heart. For me the best cure all for any ailment is Blue Rodeo. Their special blend gives me the shivers and I am drawn into another world.

  34. Certain songs stick in my head, like a full-on wedgie between the two halves of my brain. Last year the song, I Put A Spell On You (the CCR version), played non-stop in my noggin' for weeks.

    I'd promised a little novella to my publisher, and the deadline was looming. No working title, no story and just a theme to go on. Somehow I hit on the idea (obviously not an original thought), to title the novella after the song. The story fell into place after that, and seemed to write itself.

    [i]I Put A Spell On You[/i] is all about unrequited love and a young man's miscast spell. The years and regrets start weighing heavy and his resolve to try one more time brings him full circle. Yes, my story took a decided turn from the story told in the song, but it felt right anyway.

    And since I write erotic romantic comedy–paranormal at that, I think the title worked. :)

    Of course, it took a good two months after the books release before the song let me go.

    I guess it could be worse. My mental wedgie might have been the Macarena! LOL

  35. Anonymous6:02 AM

    I'm not used to you posting on weekends! :) I find that music helps me immensely while I do planning, plotting, characterizing, all that prework, but not as much when I'm actually writing.... I'm a singer so I get distracted too easily. Most recently, John Williams' Memoirs of a Geisha soundtrack helped me out with mood/my protag.

  36. It depends on the mood I am in what inspires my creativity. Sometimes it is rock, sometimes country, etc.

  37. I usually have to write with music in the background. Usually I try to have a movie soundtrack playing, since they have all sorts of inspiration for me; the action bits force me to write fast, the romantic themes let me contemplate a character's motivation, and hopefully the comical bits translate into my writing as well.

    Whenever I'm doing NaNoWriMo, I have a playlist of fast songs that I can use when I'm participating in a word war (where you write as many words as you can in a specified time).

    Some of my favorite composers are Hans Zimmer, James Horner, and John Williams, though there are many other great artists out there.

  38. Anonymous11:25 AM

    And now I know why it fitted so well when I was listening to Nickelback while reading your last book ;)

    I can't help listening music while reading but some songs are more disturbing than helping getting into the book (for exemple when you start singing the song instead of reading the book !)


  39. This resonates with me; however, I'll also hear songs on the radio that remind me of literary characters. They might not fit the time period of the music at all: Katherine of Aragon in THE CONSTANT PRINCESS jumps out at me whenever I hear "Say It Right" by Nelly Furtado. Go fig!

  40. I started out with one artist tied to a novel, but then I hated the fact that I couldn't listen to X without feeling like I had to work, especially if it was on a novel that I'm already shopping around.

    I've been playing with a mood music connection, as in I listen to Suzanne Vega when I want to edit, Dido for critting, Cat Stevens for short stories...

    That's working for the moment at least. I love music. I know I'm in a downer mood when I don't turn any on and when I do turn some on, if I choose the right mood, it gets me productive again in short order (playing Dido right now ;)).

    As far as inspiring, absolutely. There are some stories that I haven't yet caught, but when I listen to specific songs, the story tickles at the back of my mind.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting perspective, especially the suggestion to try someone brand new. I've been idea poor (and should be grateful ;)) for a bit because of stress and too much going on. Maybe finding a new artist will inspire.


  41. I'm not a writer, but I've always worked to background noise wheither it be the radio or the TV. I'm not sure it's helped me be creative, but when you're working alone it's been great company. And a favorite song is always bound to pop up and lift one's spirits. Music is good for the soul.


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